First Drive: 2014 Renault Twingo [Review]

Join us as we take Renault\'s new rear-engined city car for a spin.

France's Renault built millions of rear-engined economy cars from the middle of the 1940s to the early 1970s, when the setup was phased out in favor of front-wheel drive. The brand new third-generation Twingo marks the return of the rear-engined econobox to the Renault lineup after a 41-year absence.

The company explains it first toyed around with the idea of building a rear-engined Twingo when it developed the second-generation model that was introduced to the public at the 2007 Geneva Motor Show. The idea was quickly tossed out for cost reasons but it re-surfaced early in the third-gen model's development phase. This time around, Renault took advantage of a burgeoning partnership with Mercedes-Benz parent company Daimler to co-develop the Twingo's rear-engined, rear-wheel drive platform with smart. As a result, the Twingo's platform also underpins the smart forfour and a shortened version of it is found underneath the diminutive fortwo.

Positioned at the very bottom of the Renault lineup, the Twingo stretches 141.3 inches long, 61 inches tall and 64.5 inches wide, dimensions that make it slightly bigger in all directions than the Fiat 500, one of its closest rivals. Weight ranges between 1,904 and 2,078 pounds depending on which engine is selected; to put that figure into perspective, the 500 is comparatively chubby at 2,363 pounds in its lightest configuration.

Visually, the Twingo wears a careful evolution of its predecessor's front end, while pronounced haunches out back pay a discreet homage to the Renault 5 Turbo/Turbo 2 that famously competed in international rally events in the 1980s. The Twingo is exclusively offered with four doors, a first in the nameplate's 22-year history, but the rear door handles are integrated into the C-pillars to give the car a sleek, coupe-like look.

Specifications SheetThe Twingo is available with two gasoline-burning three-cylinder engines called SCe and TCe, respectively. The naturally-aspirated 1.0-liter SCe mill makes 70 horsepower at 6,000 rpms and 67 lb-ft. of torque starting at 2,850 rpms. The more potent TCe is a turbocharged 900cc unit tuned to generate 90 horsepower at 5,500 rpms and 100 lb-ft. of torque at 2,500 rpms, enough to send the Twingo from zero to 62 mph in 10.8 seconds.

A five-speed manual is the only gearbox available regardless of which engine is chosen, though Renault promises a dual-clutch automatic unit will join the list of options in about a year. The automaker has also confirmed the new Twingo will not be offered with a diesel engine. Although it is technically possible to shoehorn a four-cylinder in the engine bay, sales of oil-burning city cars are too low to justify the required investment.

The SCe returns 52 mpg in a mixed European cycle and 56 mpg when it is fitted with an optional start/stop system. The TCe comes standard with a start/stop system that helps it return 54 mpg.

The Inside StoryThe drab, oversized dashboard of the outgoing Twingo has been replaced by a simpler one that looks noticeably more modern. The switches and knobs have been reduced to a minimum, the air vents are smaller and less intrusive and buyers looking for a vivid cockpit can mix and match a wide variety of trim surfaces and colors. This will likely create questionable color combinations down the line but customization has become the norm in the city car segment. Those looking to further deck out their car can order a 27-inch long cloth sunroof that automatically retracts at the push of a button.

Renault has inevitably made concessions in the name of economy. Some of the plastics used throughout the cabin aren't exactly top notch and many components - including the shift knob, the door handles and the power window switches - have been lurking at the bottom of the company's parts bin for the better part of a decade. Additionally, some drivers will find that the instrumentation is too Spartan. Even higher trim levels are limited to an analog speedometer, a digital gas gauge and a wide array of miscellaneous warning lights.

Though the rear-engined setup could understandably lead some to think otherwise, the trunk is located behind the rear seats like in a front-engined car. The front hood merely slides forward by about six inches to provide access to the battery as well as to the reservoirs for the brake fluid, the washer fluid and the coolant.

The Twingo offers 6.6 cubic feet of trunk space in its standard configuration. 7.7 cubic feet are available by tilting the rear seatback forward by a few inches, and folding the seatback down entirely yields 34.6 cubic feet. The front passenger seatback can also fold flat, making it possible to carry objects that measure up to 90 inches long.

The metal lid that separates the engine bay from the passenger compartment is covered by a thick layer of foam in order to keep noise, heat and fumes out of the cockpit. Even after several hours of driving on a hot day, the trunk floor was not noticeably hotter than it would have been in a front-engined car.

Designers have concealed storage bins in all four doors, in the center console and under the rear seats. While the bins under the rear seats are clever and practical, they raise the seat's height by a couple of inches which limits headroom to the point where taller passengers will want to call shotgun. Up front, the Twingo is both roomier and more comfortable than the 500.

Two Ways to ConnectThe Twingo can be ordered with one of two infotainment systems. Called R & Go, the first lets the driver use his or her smartphone as an infotainment system by downloading a free purpose-designed application that works with both Android and Apple devices. The app runs a long list of functions including navigation and entertainment, and it can even be configured to provide a tachometer.

Top of the line cars use the latest generation of Renault's well-known touch screen-based R-Link infotainment system. R-Link groups the Twingo's navigation (if equipped), connectivity and entertainment functions into a single unit that responds to voice commands as well as swipe and pinch-zoom gestures.

On the Open RoadRear-engined cars like the iconic Volkswagen Beetle and Renault's own Dauphine were notorious for being tail-heavy. Renault has addressed that concern by putting 45 percent of the Twingo's mass on the front wheels and 55 percent over the rear axle, a statistic more commonly found in the realm of sports cars than in the world of economy cars. There's no need for sand bags up front: The Twingo is the best-handling car in its segment by a long shot, and it is also the most engaging to drive.

The 90-horsepower turbo three is downright peppy at low rpms but it loses some of its punch when higher engine speeds are reached. Still, it's the best option for folks who regularly drive on the freeway because the naturally-aspirated 70-horsepower mill is a little wheezy at high speeds, making it necessary to downshift into fourth when passing on the freeway. Speaking of the gear lever, the vague shifting sometimes associated with rear-engined cars is non-existent in the Twingo, and the gearbox is direct and crisp to operate.

One of the benefits of the rear-mounted engine is that Renault was able to free up a 45-degree steering angle, about 15 degrees more than in the Twingo's front-engined rivals. The Twingo can park and turn around in impossibly tight places, a real boon when driving in big cities. The steering itself is responsive and not overly assisted.

Leftlane's Bottom LineThe third-gen Renault Twingo proves that practical rear-engined economy cars can still exist in the 21st century. There's more to the new Twingo than its unorthodox engine placement, however. It's maneuverable, it's efficient and the 90-horsepower model is truly engaging to drive, making it easily one of the best cars in its segment.

Photos by Ronan Glon.

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